The absence of a strong leader can create either a political vacuum or an opportunity for real change. What’s it going to be?
Every month for the last year and a half, most everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador has been telling themselves that surely this particular upheaval is the most unhinged the province’s politics are going to get. Round and round and round it goes; where the drama stops, nobody knows.
Well, maybe we can hazard an educated guess. Barring anything cataclysmic coming down the pipe – the Second Coming of Christ and his thousand-year Kingdom, say, or John Crosbie drinking from the fountain of youth – the signs point to a coming regime change in Newfoundland and Labrador. For the first time in over a decade, the Liberals look on track to win the next election. ‘Regime change’ is, of course, a rather dramatic way of putting it. Despite the partisan hyperbole pitched back and forth across local airwaves, broad continuity will be the order of the day no matter what happens in 2015.
Consider the case of Muskrat Falls. In the 2011 election – an almost mythical time, when the N.L. NDP was a credible political party and then Progressive Conservative premier Kathy Dunderdale’s name could be uttered without spitting – the Liberals could be defined, broadly speaking, as ‘the party against Muskrat Falls’. They were also the biggest campaign train wreck, whose own ad copy proclaimed they could ‘do better’ and whose leader was hastily chosen at an emergency circus convened in the St. John’s Delta hotel. They weren’t opposed in principle to developing the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project, but they were committed to exploring alternatives and, above all, scuttling the Tories’ proposed deal.
Flash forward three years (and a proper leadership convention), and the Liberals are now effectively resigned to carrying through Dunderdale’s vision. Leader Dwight Ball, who has no intention of cancelling the project, has Cathy Bennett (former chairwoman to Nalcor’s board of directors and Muskrat Falls enthusiast) sitting alongside him in caucus. As it stands, there is little functional difference between the Liberal approach to the project and the Tory one; save, perhaps, that the Liberals aren’t carrying quite so much political baggage.
A real place for the Liberals to shine would be in the area of transparency and democratic reform – although, again, the party isn’t promising anything so earth-shattering that we might not also hear it from the incoming Tory leader. The Liberals have promised to bring the House of Assembly up to speed with the rest of the country by instituting regular nonpartisan legislative committees, which would have the power to call public witnesses and bring expert knowledge to bear on crafting legislation. They’re also committed to repealing Bill 29 (a 2012 amendment to the Access to Information Act) while the Tories have, so far, merely promised to re-examine it. This is a great move symbolically, but it’s not clear they plan on going any further and taking apart the deeper byzantine bureaucracy that’s been thrown up by the government to limit public access to information.
So, as far as anyone can tell, the old adage that there is very little substantive ideological disagreement in local politics remains as true as ever; there’s a reason the Liberals have been able to absorb defectors from every other party. But that doesn’t mean the two major parties, in their present forms, are identical. There are a few good indications that the powers that be are ready and willing to change the political bedsheets.
For one thing, you can follow the money. In a little less than a year, Liberal and Tory fundraising fortunes have flipped. Corporate backers are starting to shift their political investments away from the Progressive Conservatives and towards the Opposition, one $500-a-plate dinner and $1,400-a-team golf tournament at a time. And as seems to be the case in Newfoundland party organizing, if you come, they will build it (but not a moment sooner). Internal party planning, neglected by the Liberals for over a decade, is finally stirring back to life. And with momentum (and money) building behind them, we can also imagine the party recruiting the lion’s share of quality candidates for their next election slate. By contrast, outside of stalwart districts like Ferryland – where even Judas Iscariot would be swept into office on a Tory ticket – turnout for PC delegate selection has dipped lower than dignity on George Street after last call.
Not that any of this should be taken to mean that the Liberals themselves have done the heavy lifting here. For the most part, they’re sitting pretty atop the polls because their opponents are determined to eat themselves alive.
As a political force, the N.L. NDP were dead on arrival the moment Lorraine Michael walked into CBC studios last October and decided to air the party’s leadership putsch on the evening news; MHA George Murphy publicly breaking ranks with his co-conspirators was just a further twist of the knife. Then Dale Kirby and Chris Mitchelmore burned the body when they quit caucus to join the Liberals, and the party salted the earth for a generation when they reaffirmed Michael’s leadership at the 2014 spring convention. If they manage to elect a single MHA in the next election, they can consider it a triumph.
The PC collapse has been significantly less sudden but no less spectacular. When the lights went out across the island for several days back in January (thanks to higher than normal usage induced by severe cold combined with aging/failing equipment), so too did they go out for Kathy Dunderdale’s political career. While it had been a popular pastime to openly speculate about when she’d resign in the months leading up to #DarkNL, the moment she used her first media appearance to quibble with the electorate over the definition of the word ‘crisis’, it was over – a moment symbolically captured in Paul Lane’s sudden conversion to Liberalism on the road to Smitty’s restaurant.
In the eight months since she resigned, the Tories have been through two leadership contests. The first was a surreal faceoff between three political amateurs racing to talk themselves out of the premiership, and it ended with Frank Coleman wisely abdicating three weeks before his own coronation. The second is a slap fight between three party B-listers over how many second- and third-cousins they can drag out to delegate selection meetings in one of the hottest summers on record.
This is the logical endpoint of the Danny Williams era. Danny was a force of nature, second in stature only to Joey Smallwood in our collective political consciousness. He kept the party, the government, and the popular will bound together by the sheer force of his personality. But the very strength of the Williams Tories has now turned out to be their greatest weakness – the stronger the man at the centre, the weaker the institutions around him. Strong leaders are by definition surrounded by followers and, as time goes on, by sycophants. When a leader like this vanishes – as Williams did abruptly in late 2010 – a power vacuum is inevitable. It took a few years, but we have finally come to the endgame.
This has been a recurring theme in Newfoundland’s politics since long before Confederation. Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle of ‘Strong Man’ politics is to actually do the work of institutional and democratic reform. Legislative committees are a modest step in the right direction. They would loosen the straightjacket of party discipline and ensure that the House becomes a site of reasoned investigation and debate, instead of a place for MHAs to shout over each other in Question Period before rubber-stamping anything the executive brings forward. Having the legislature sit for more than 50 days a year might not hurt either, but one utopian pipe dream at a time.
All of this is easier said than done. Newfoundland doesn’t exactly have a proud democratic heritage. We’re the only polity in the Western world to ever voluntarily surrender self-rule, and we’re generally pretty comfortable with autocratic policymaking so long as the person in charge does it with proper gusto. We may technically be a ‘have province’, but we have yet to shake our ‘have-not’ mentality.
All told, it’s unlikely that Dwight Ball or whoever eventually claims the PC leadership will be a ‘Great Man’ in the mold of Joey or Danny. But neither was Clyde Wells in 1989, or Frank Moores in 1972; not every competent captain needs to be Magellan. But if we ever want to stop going around in circles, we’ll need a full crew with an explorer’s vision to sail us into stable, substantive democracy. Otherwise we’ll be forever in the lurch, waiting around for the next Strong Man (or Woman) to ride in on a horse and save us from ourselves.